The influential mayor of Osaka outraged China and South Korea by saying World War II sex slaves were necessary, prompting fresh doubts about Japan's willingness to acknowledge wartime aggression.
Senior Japanese politicians today attempted to prevent controversial comments about the country's military's use of sex slaves during World War II from souring its relations with South Korea and China.
The latest furor over Japan's conduct in Asia before and during the war began on Monday, when the right-wing mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, said the forced recruitment of Asian women to work in military brothels had been necessary to maintain discipline among soldiers. Mr. Hashimoto was responding to questions from reporters, days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would not revise previous official apologies for the use of sex slaves.
"For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary," he told reporters. "That's clear to anyone."
Historians believe that Japan forced as many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, China, and the Philippines, and euphemistically referred to as comfort women, to have sex with soldiers during its occupations of China and the Korean Peninsula.
The comments would have ruffled feathers in Seoul and Beijing had they come from any Japanese politician, but the reaction was particularly fierce given Hashimoto's dual role as co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), now a serious third force in politics, with 54 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament.
The lawyer-turned-politician has used his criticism of mainstream political parties to win over disenchanted voters in local elections, and has been talked about as a future prime minister. He has proved less adept when confronted with tricky questions about foreign affairs, however.
Among Japan's neighbors, his remarks were taken as another sign that Japan has yet to atone for the past.
"We are appalled and indignant about the Japanese politician's comments boldly challenging humanity and historical justice," Hong Lei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters. "The way they treat the past will determine the way Japan walks toward the future. On what choice Japan will make, its Asian neighbors and the international community will wait and see."
A spokeswoman for the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, told the Monitor that Hashimoto's remarks "only weaken any possibility for better Korea-Japan relations."
She added: "Japan needs to look back upon itself, and try to understand the feelings of others first, before trying to find a solution on its own terms."
Prime Minister Abe was among several senior politicians who distanced themselves from Hashimoto's remarks.
On Wednesday, Abe told a parliamentary committee: "The Japanese government has a different position to that expressed in [Hashimoto's] comments, and as I have said countless times, I feel both great sadness and the deepest regret for the pain and suffering experienced at that time by the comfort women."
Earlier this month, Abe said he would honor a 1993 government statement acknowledging and apologizing for the use of sex slaves by Japanese troops. Abe had previously questioned claims that the women had been coerced, and his climbdown is being seen as an attempt to improve relations with South Korea and China amid continuing rows over rival territorial claims and tensions with North Korea.
Hashimoto, meanwhile, attempted to clarify his remarks, telling reporters that he had been referring to the atmosphere of the times, adding that he opposed the use of sex slaves.
"I don't intend to justify [military brothels], but various countries at the time had similar schemes," he said. "I wanted to raise the issue of why Japan alone is being criticized."
Yuji Yoshitomi, an Osaka-based journalist who has written a book about Hashimoto, said the mayor had probably damaged the JRP's prospects in July's upper house elections.
"He wasn't trying to justify the use of comfort women, but he didn't explain himself properly and has now caused an international incident," Yoshitomi told the Monitor.
"Hashimoto's problem is that he's one person doing two jobs, as Osaka mayor and co-leader of a political party. He never wanted the Japan Restoration Party to be too involved in international affairs and to concentrate on local issues instead. Now it's halfway between the two, and that's causing him problems."
His aversion to international issues notwithstanding, Hashimoto may have some explaining to do with his hosts when he visits the United States next month.
Not content with fomenting controversy over sex slaves, he also suggested that US troops in Okinawa make use of the legal sex industry to reduce the incidence of rapes and other crimes against local women.
"We can't control the sexual energy of these brave [US] marines," Hashimoto reportedly told a senior US military official during a recent visit to the southern Japanese island. "They must make more use of adult entertainers."